A week following the 44th president of the United States’ second term inauguration, we get a hagiography of the 16th. Over ten years in the making, the latest film from Steven Spielberg paints an unabashedly positive portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the final stages of his life; set against the tense eclipse of the American civil war, he valiantly brought forth the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery in a monumental collision between lame duck democrats and republicans. It’s a film of notable surprises, particularly the loquacious, yet rousable script from Pulitzer prize winner Tony Kushner which transforms it from a two and a half hour epic into a tense political drama, of the Aaron Sorkin ilk.
Yes, Lincoln has certainly pandered to the awards academies, racking up a formidable 12 nominations at the Oscars next month. Most of it’s gong chances are debatable, but there’s one performance that is more than worthy of a 13″ inch golden fella.
Let’s just get it out of the way, Daniel Day-Lewis is the beating heart of the film, the commandeering force behind it’s successes. His stalwart depiction of Lincoln is awe-inspiring and unparalleled, even by his own legendary standards. Think back to his moustachioed villain Bill the Butcher in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Flamboyant, erratic, and equally Oscar tipped, that knife wielding maniac is the antithesis of Lincoln, and Day-Lewis is equally unrecognisable. He plays the president of towering stature with a reedy, borderline warbling tenor, yet incongruously still embodies Lincoln’s well documented charisma and affability. It’s difficult to attest how historically veracious it all is, but the performance is so astonishing in fact, that it is rendered invisible; as if Spielberg has stumbled upon a time machine and gone back to pick up the bona-fide bearded lawman.
Usually such a consummate performance would render any other performances obsolete, but not here. Tommy Lee Jones is perfectly cast as the po-faced and silver tongued radical Thaddeus Stevens, the staunch opponent of slavery who helped reach the momentous verdict with his political prowess. It could be quite a dowdy slog to the attested outcome, but the appearance of James Spader and John Hawkes as conniving spin doctors gives the film some desperately required levity.
If Day-Lewis is taciturn, Sally Field is the portent thespian, portraying the psychologically perturbed first lady with raw emotional impulse in a performance that borders from the cerebral to the melodramatic. It’s far from a romantic film, but Spielberg doesn’t cower away from presentation of Lincoln as a complex family man, torn between doing what is good for the country and good for the home (which includes a bit-part from Joseph Gordon-Levitt as reluctantly drafted son Robert).
The sole issue Lincoln suffers with is it’s smacks of self-effacement. A worthy picture on a worthy subject – from the quotidian American populist filmmaker, no less – some of its’ plaudits are more akin to tokenism than genuine merit. John Williams’ drab, and offensively mnemonic scoring, Kaminski’s mundane cinematography, Michael Kahn’s serviceable editing. None of these aspects are particularly bad, but they’re hardly gong-worthy. It also comes woefully close to a bore whenever Jones or Day-Lewis aren’t lingering in the frame. Fortunately, that isn’t often enough to dampen your engagement in the story, or the peculiarly nail biting amendment verdict.
While the film won’t go down in the history books, it’s handling of a difficult subject matter, and that awe-inspiring central performance certainly will. While I much prefer Spielberg in ‘fun for all the family’ mode, this adult chamber drama has a profound resonance, which makes it well worth watching.
Lincoln is released in cinemas across the UK from 25th January, 2013. Here at The Frame Loop, we’ll be running our Oscars’ predictions list, so be sure to follow the blog and come see how Lincoln fairs.